Advise, Assist, Befriend - life in the National Probation Service

or, 'Enforcement, Rehabilitation and Public Protection'. You know the drill: any views expressed here do not (necessarily) represent the views of the National Probation Service.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Talking Tough

Surely it cannot be a coincidence that these two stories appear in the Observer on the same day. The first describes the shrinking of the public sector to pre-welfare state days; the second describes a massive expansion of work that is currently done by the public sector. You don't need to be studying for a Level 3 Numeracy qualification to know that more work being done by fewer people is a recipe for disaster - but actually, it's fairly plain that this, for once, isn't mathematical illiteracy by the Government.

No, this is the first serious salvo in the full-scale privatisation of Probation work. The "round-the-clock surveillance by GPS systems" will be done by computer, with a few cyber-overseers in regional offices for G4S and Serco. The Probation Service, which is rapidly approaching a point at which any further staff losses will mean it ceases to exist as a functioning organism, simply cannot do work on this scale. And nor should it - the proper punishment and rehabilitation of offenders is not a numbers game, but about working with people as individuals to challenge and change their behaviour.

Napo seems to be ostentatiously trying to get itself on the wrong side of the argument here, with Harry Fletcher saying that the tougher supervision is, the more likely it is to fail. Every officer who's ever written a Pre-Sentence Report will have typed the words "setting him [or her] up to fail" when trying to persuade a bench to avoid the kitchen sink approach when making a new Community Order. And the point is true - for some people, simply making it on time to an appointment each week is a significant achievement, and one that is not going to be assisted by an electronic anklet.

But we shouldn't be arguing against the creation of "tough" new sentencing powers. Instead we should be pointing out that community sentences, as they are currently constituted, are tough sentences. Anyone who's ever tried to give up smoking, or lose weight, will know how difficult can be to make and sustain behaviour changes - and that's without the other (yes, self-inflicted) barriers that a criminal conviction brings along with it.

The Observer (lazily, in The Enforcer's humbe opinion) says that community sentences are "widely seen as a soft option". This just doesn't match up with what those of us at the coal face see on a daily basis, with those we supervise, and those who know them. If the Government wanted to make a real difference, it would be trumpeting the successes of community sentences, which represent huge value for money and are a force for good in this country. An expansion of tagging will clog up the courts - and then the prisons - with breaches, and get in the way of any meaningful change.

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